I wake up every day, completely aware that I exist. Sounds so simple, so obvious, but it’s not really. I often feel so much pressure to make the most of each day I’m given, it’s difficult to relax. When it’s beautiful outside, I feel guilty for being inside. When it’s crappy outside, guilt chides me for making excuses for being inside. If I’m inside anyway, guilt burns a hole in the back of my head if I’m not working or writing or making something or doing something productive. I’m overly cognizant I’m alive and healthy and that could change any minute. I’ve seen it change in less. How can I sit around, how can I stop, when there are so many things I want to do, places I want to go, experiences I want to experience? I mean…it’s exhausting.
And especially unfortunate considering how much I love a good Netflix series binge, reading a book cover-to-cover in a single day, or just wandering aimlessly through my house, gazing at stuff. Almost everything I own has a story to tell; which is probably why I still own it.
The mere existence of social media makes the guilt hungry. I’m hyperaware of all those successfully pulling off their dream adventure lifestyle; whether it’s mostly real or mostly an illusion, that’s a question for them. We live in a world of Twitter fandom, Instagram idols and YouTube sensations, many of whose sole job is to live and document their awesome lives, not to say that doesn’t come with its own challenges. It’s difficult not to notice these icons if you partake in social media at all, these constant reminders of the life you could be living. There’s something for everyone: van life, yogi life, mountain yogi life, people-who-adopt-pets-with-special-needs life, people-who-mimic-celebrity-photos life, dirtbag life, thru-hiker life, vegan life, tiny home life. I mean, pets have their own accounts and 9 outta 10 could probably enjoy an early retirement. If there’s a niche, there’s someone out there benefitting from our incessant need to consume it. No niche? That’s cool, just create one, sit back, and wait for the fan tweets to pour in.
Or, more realistically, don’t.
Because most of us aren’t able (or don’t want) to pull off that lifestyle, and never will, even if we try uber hard to do so. Even if it looks so easy. Errybody wannabe famous, get noticed, be seen as somebody, often without really having much to offer in exchange at all. We’re all photographers, writers, comedians, adventurers. The internet is saturated with shit, and everyone seems keen on taking a dump into an already overflowing toilet. I had small window of opportunity while hiking the AT to capitalize on internet fame, but I took one look at that toilet, and just couldn’t. Sometimes I wonder where I’d be had I made more effort (likely exactly where I am). Now I just have a bunch of Instagram followers, most of whom are bots, and the rest who don’t know me or care to, yet love to get upset with me for: eating meat, talking real talk, posting too many pictures of my dog, being able to thru-hike, being the me I’ve always been and not the me they want me to be. You name it, someone hates it; as if my personal social media presence is solely there to please them, whoever they are. Internet fame isn’t my answer, anyway.
Since I discovered there was more to being alive than school and work, I’ve been littering the years with micro-adventures; a series of journeys strung together, with regular life in between, a regular life I enjoyed. Extended weekends snowboarding in the mountains, long cycle trips on Wisconsin’s country roads, train rides south and road trips north. Cabin nights with friends and holidays abroad. Some lasting moments, some days.
But after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2015, everything “else” seemed somehow…smaller. I felt this nagging feeling creep in, telling me if I wasn’t doing something awesome, I was somehow letting myself down, not taking advantage of life the way I should be. I found myself just waiting for my next Big Adventure. Sometimes you’ll hear people refer to thru-hiking as a disease. Maybe this is what they mean. Because after the PCT, it got worse. I began neglecting the simple moments in life, moments I used to thrive on, in constant search of the grandiose. And that search was draining all the goodness from life and filling it with this poison called anxiety.
I needed to change my perspective, change my life in a big way. So I created a step-by-step guide on how to get my train back on track:
Step 1. Get a dog
There are no further steps.
I’ll be the first to tell you, it’s unfair and selfish to have a child to fix your life, so I feel a bit like a hypocrite right now, but may I remind you, Freddie needed saving too. (And ya, I know, he’s a dog, thanks.)
A lot of questions raced through my mind when adopting Freddie Mercury became a real thing. Shit, am I even ready to be a dog mom? (More than I ever knew.) Who will watch him when I travel for work? (It takes a village. Thank you, village, particularly one villager.) Will he eat the cats? (He will try.) Will he live up to his name? (Farrokh Bulsara aka Frederick “Freddie” Mercury would be very proud. And yes, when people look at me blankly after I state his name, I stare blankly back, immediately judging them.) Will I turn into one of those people who buys costumes for their dog? (Pshhh. Never.)
But one thing I didn’t mentally address, even though I could see it poking through all the fluffy questions, was what making Freddie Mercury part of my family really signified: The Tosh Tornado would have to find another method of travel.
No more flying by the seat of my pants, spontaneous flight purchases, quitting my job and escaping to the Arctic (though I will always come back to you, Lapland). No more unplanned extended absences from home, accepting every invitation from every friend for every birthday, wedding and child birth. I’ve always been the person to show up, mostly because there was never a reason not to. And I love being that person. But…
I struggle with the overwhelming Menu of Life, always have. Endless pools of options mess with my mind hardcore, and my life had sort of become this bottomless pool of random mismatched opportunities. Nothing seemed to fit quite right. And I was drowning. I could do anything. I had the time, the money, the freedom, but I had lost some of my will. Writing that last sentence makes me feel like I’m complaining about having too many chips, and you can never have too many chips, but I needed…more. Structure? Responsibility? Actual chips? I don’t know. More something.
And Freddie gave me more. He brought focus to my menu of life, guiding my experiences to the Things You Can Do With Dogs section. For the most part, if Freddie can’t, I can’t now either. The menu became manageable. He opened doors by shutting so many others. I no longer feel guilty being inside, because I’m reading curled up next to a dog chasing bunnies in his dreams. (Freddie and I really bonded over our shared desire to make all the bunnies run in fear.) He means more weekends at home, more routine, more stability. I never thought I’d admit this to myself, and especially not to others, but I’m ready. It had become tiresome and lonely, all the running from place to place, feeling a bit more empty after every adventure.
At the risk of sounding super cheesy, Freddie brings that great adventure to my every day. Actually, screw that, there’s nothing cheesy about loving a dog. Or maybe it’s all cheesy. Or maybe it’s the right amount of cheese. Whatever, who cares, it’s cheese and it’s delicious. No more pressure to live big, no more nagging guilt simply for living a relatively “normal” life, because it’s not just about me anymore. Of course, I write this two days after taking a 2500 mile road trip out to Big Sky for a week of mountains and snowboarding with my new adventure dog.
The adventures won’t stop. They’ll just be…different. I don’t need to constantly seek The Great to feel extraordinary. Freddie Mercury makes me feel pretty damn special every day, and that’s enough for me.
Now that was cheesy.
When I was very young, like so young I’m not sure how much of what I am about to tell you reflects reality, and what’s been crafted by my mind over the years, but the basic fact remains the same: I killed my dog. Accidentally.
We were playing fetch in the yard and I threw the ball across the county highway we lived on, or maybe it rolled there, or maybe there was no ball at all. But one moment we were playing, the next she was nowhere to be seen, and my ears were ringing with the sound of a semi-truck screeching to a halt.
A lanky woman climbed out of her giant rig, peered under the truck, smothered her cigarette with the toe of her boot as she stood up, sighing. I can still hear the click of her steps as she walked around the truck, toward me, her high-pitched yet husky voice and the smokers cough that followed her three worded question:
That yer dog?
I probably owe her a thank you for being the sole reason I never took up smoking.
I stared under the trailer, heart pounding, not blinking, not understanding, not really. And then my dad was there, in front of me, blocking my view, telling me to go inside and find my sister and stay with her until he came in. Don’t let her outside. I ran inside, grabbed my sister and pulled her to the upstairs window, where we watched our dad scoop our dog from the hot pavement with a shovel and carry her slowly to one of the massive trees in the front yard. We watched as he dug her grave and carefully placed her lifeless body in the ground. I silently said goodbye to my friend through the second floor window pane. Tessa had no idea what was going on, and not fully grasping the situation, I couldn’t find the words to tell her, but we cried together anyway. I’m guessing this was not what my dad had in mind when he asked me to go inside.
Insert a lot of speculation why I am the way I am; it’s impossible to say what role this traumatic event played in shaping all that is me. What I do know is I’ve thought about this day almost every day since. I wrote my college entrance essay on it. I’ve written about it in every writing class I’ve ever taken, in poem form, in short story form, in first person, third person, omniscient narrator, from all the points of view. In the beginning, I mostly thought about death and dying, but as I grew older, that morphed into thinking about what it meant to be alive. Every time I found the need express sadness or regret or remorse and just wasn’t feeling it, I thought about Sweet Pea, which meant the tears were real, I just wasn’t crying over what you thought I was crying about. I’ve cried twice just writing this. And every time the tears served me well, I silently high-fived Sweet Pea; still my partner in crime after all these years.
Sweet Pea was a quirky little Australian Cattle Dog and the first living thing I can remember feeling unconditional love for. Expressing feeling was hard for my family, we didn’t really do it, but Sweet Pea didn’t know that, so she just did her thing. Life, love oozed from her body, and I soaked it all up. I remember happily laying on her belly next to Tessa, hot sun on our faces, none of us with any desire to move, ever. I remember hanging on her neck like little kids hug doggie necks, like I see little kids hug my dog now. I remember her warm wet kisses and the way she pawed at you in affection. I remember loving and feeling loved. In a house where everyone was still working on their own definition of love (don’t worry, we got there), that’s not nothing. That’s everything.
Fast forward 30+ years. It was late, I was flipping through rescue dogs like dudes on Tinder, except the exact opposite, because basically every dog was a yes and I was like, HOW DO YOU CHOOSE, as opposed to, whelp, this is disappointing.
And then I saw him.
And I knew he was my dog. I tried to move on, to give the other dogs a chance, but my attempts were half-assed. I couldn’t focus. I wasn’t really seeing anymore, I was just clicking, going through the motions. My search was over. There was no choice to make. I told myself if I didn’t get this dog, I would wait. If it didn’t work out, it was a sign to slow my roll, that maybe the this wasn’t the right time. There was something about this pupper in particular that I was drawn to, something oozing from the photos. Something about his face, his energy, his presence. Whatever it was, Sweet Pea had had it too.
I sent my application in at 10pm December 27 and before the New Year I learned Freddie Mercury was mine, just like I knew he already was. But now it was official.
I sent a photo to my dad.
He saw it too.
Sweet Pea, (I sometimes call him that by accident, sometimes out of affection, I hope you don’t mind) I think you’d like Freddie Mercury, and I know he’d love you, because he loves everything I love, like an extension of me on his own time. I watch as he meets the people in my life, the ones he’s immediately drawn to and the ones that will take a few meetings, because frankly, people have layers and we’re just trying to smell them all out, figure out how many licks it takes to get to the center of the tootsie pop, where the understanding lives.
In his short year on earth (give or take a few months, no one really knows), Freddie has learned, like I have learned, not everyone can be trusted. Some people will leave you, some people will love you, some people will do both. Not everyone has the same intentions when they pat your head or give you treats.
But together, we’re gonna take on the world.
(Or at least the neighborhood. We’ll start with that.)
I don’t mind being sad. I actually kind of like it. I like feeling all the things, any emotion, mostly because for a long time, I didn’t think I had any. In college, my sister Tessa and I used to joke in a “no, but I’m serious” way about not having any real feelings. Over the years we’d read so many books, seen so many movies, had so many friends who seemed to have all the feels, so we knew they technically existed, we just couldn’t identify with any of them. Every now and then, we’d casually slip the topic into conversation:
Feel anything yet?
Yeah. Me neither.
Now I’m like the kid who just discovered this sweet new gaming system called Nintendo and everyone else is like, uh yeah, it’s been around for a while. And no one’s evening using the Classic anymore, they’ve all moved onto the Switch, whatever that is. I’m obviously just making excuses for my constant over-sharing of feelings with basically anyone who will listen.
So yeah, I embrace the suck. I mean, without shitty times, the good times would become meaningless. They’d just be…times. And I can usually pull myself out of almost anything, I’ve got the bounce-back of a bouncy ball. But this past year was different. I couldn’t get un-sad. I was perpetually sad; stuck in sadness. Sadness isn’t even the right word. But I was definitely stuck. Like someone threw my ball in the mud. And then I sank and the mud hardened over the top of me. And I couldn’t see the way back up. And then those horrible weeds that sort of look pretty and you’re all like, wait, is this a weed…or a flower? grew around me, and I couldn’t even run (roll?) away.
But all bad things must come to an end, and when they did, I zeroed in on all potential invasive species, pulled the weeds up by the roots and grew a f*cking garden. A legit metaphorical garden. I’ve never been able to keep an actual plant alive, though Lisa made me buy one on Friday, and I stare at it pretty much all day long for hints of it’s imminent death.
So basically, I went big, because I did not want to go home. Especially not as it was. Literally.
While there is a lot to be said about working from home, it’s actually pretty tough to master. For me, it’s been a huge adjustment, especially coming from a solid decade of being on the road 75% of the year. When I wasn’t working, I was taking trips somewhere here, visiting someone there. I used to cherish the rare times I was home. I’d come in late Thursday night or early Friday morning and inhale my piece of the pie I rarely nibbled on before taking off for the weekend, or flying back to work on Sunday. I’d wander from room to room, gazing at my acquired life, a life with which I spent so little time. I was completely content doing nothing on the weekends I was actually home, just sitting in my living room, reading with a glass of wine (like the classy gal I am). It was my sanctuary.
And then it became my prison. I was home all day, every day. Morning bled into afternoon bled into evening, and there I was, home. And then it was the weekend. Weekend? What does that even mean? There was no definition between work and life, everything was just there, always. And I was there with it. Trapped. No place to escape. I despised anything within focus.
So I sold everything in my living room on Craigslist.
25. Refresh 102
My furniture was almost 15 years old, remnants of my graduate school days, when my friend worked at a home furnishing store and got me a killer deal. It was time. I just never noticed or cared because I was never home to look at it. Right move or not, I seriously cannot tell you what this did for my state of mind. I also discovered the very weird power of Craigslist (again, super late to the game). And I got to support all sorts of small business owners in Madison. Win.
I also read articles on how to successfully work from home, tweaked my routine, figured some things out, and made a side Note to Self in my new office surroundings: Four months of hiking 25-40 miles a day (yeah, okay, we only walked 40 miles one day) to walking way, way, way less than 25-40 miles a day is a huge adjustment for your physical body. And your mental state.
All that hiking does a body (and a mind) good, but when you abruptly stop, weird things happen. I was regularly going to yoga, but it wasn’t enough. And running on my own wasn’t a viable option because I need to be held accountable. I need structure. I need someone to watch me, or I will quit when it gets hard, which is sort of why I social media the crap outta my hikes. To be held accountable.
16. DUDE, MOVE YOUR BODY
18. Climbing gym!! (but, seriously this time)
So I joined Orange Theory Gym, which is sort of like CrossFit but not at all, and definitely less cultish. (Sorry, Crossfitters, but it’s true. You people are…intense.) And Lisa and I finally took our belaying test so we can actually climb at the local gym (and then to infinity and beyond), something we’ve been saying we should do for years. Turns out, you can teach an old dog new tricks.
The concept of a midlife crisis has always been strange to me because how can you call something midlife unless you know for certain when you’re gonna die? But that’s not what this is, because I’m obviously going to live to 103 (these are just things I know) which means I have like, 15 years before I hit full crisis mode. But let’s say it were. Some people buy big fancy cars, some people have affairs, others quit their New York City jobs for California dreams. If you’re Don Draper, you do all three. Me? I got Freddie Mercury.
15. Get a dog
Freddie demanded an entire post to himself as he single-handedly helps me achieve almost everything on my list (no pressure, Fred) so I’ll just leave you with his adorable face for now.
Growing up, I remember how enamored my mom was with the Oregon Coast. I think she still is. She loved everything about it. The rough waters, the often dark gray skies that made the sunshine that much more cherished, the rugged beaches, the rawness of it all. She loved all of the ocean vomit as well – the polished rocks, the crazy shells, the driftwood. We had pieces of the wild coast in our home, items she found so captivating, she couldn’t leave behind.
At the dawn of 2018, I found myself cast ashore, choking out the last bits of seawater, gasping for air. I crawled farther onto land, glaring at the angry sea behind me, which no longer seemed as angry as I remembered it, waves lapping gently at my feet. I stood, a piece of driftwood tossed on the beach, edges softer, more beautiful from the hardships of the sea. Polished. Smooth. Touchable. Vulnerable. And maybe for the first time, unopposed to the idea that someone walking along the beach might find it so captivating, they can’t leave it behind.
(No mom, not you. Thanks, though.)
Happy 2018, Year of Done Better.
As December 31, 2017 rolled around, as per usual, I claimed to be so over New Year’s Resolutions, yet still felt compelled to author a list entitled:
2018: Year of Done Better
with the rationale of, they’re not so much resolutions as they are guidelines for living a basic happy and healthy human life. Like, shit I should already be doing, but I’m not. For example:
6. Eat real food
7. Cook more meals
9. Water! Drink it!!
And yes, many items on the list include exclamation points. Other items are actual things I want to accomplish or start doing in earnest:
19. Mountain bike!
20. Hike the Wonderland Trail and/or the JMT
22. Snowboard moooooore**
** Oh man, I had BIG plans for this one until a certain four-legged creature derailed me. Two winter passes, 66 different possible mountains…I was basically headed to the Olympics (In my head, IRL I only visit terrain parks when I accidentally find myself in them, and then the fun comes in gracefully avoiding all the obstacles, including riders coming from the air).
And others are simple reminders I wish I could remember without having to write them down for reference:
5. Don’t dwell on what you can’t control
14. Don’t place your happiness in someone else’s hands (in retrospect, this should probably be a bit higher on the list. #2019)
And that’s all I’ll share because you don’t really care and some of them are embarrassing and anyway, what’s on the list is not the point. The point is why I made the list, which is mostly because I really like lists. Actually, I really like checking things off lists. Oh, and because 2017 tried to destroy me and I felt like making a list of things that would prevent 2018 from doing the same thing might be helpful.
Normally I pride myself on riding the wave, but by the end of 2017, I felt more like a piece of driftwood slamming up against the edge of stationary objects, tumbling around, dragged under, pulled back to sea again and again with no control or destination, instead of the sure footed surfer atop a board. I wasn’t riding the wave anymore. It was attacking me. I was drowning. Suffocating.
If that sounds like the worst, it was. And I am (someone incapable of sugar-coating shit) sugar-coating it.
The New Year is arbitrary. It means nothing more than the flip of a calendar, the slight upward tick of a number, the next period of 365 days, a complicated construct of time established probably for some excellent scientific earthly reason that I don’t care to look up. But just like a birthday, nothing is any different when the so-called new year hits. You don’t get a reset button where you can start fresh, a blank slate where people forget, where you forget about the past year. It’s not a requirement that 2017 be packed neatly into a filing cabinet to be referenced only when absolutely necessary in order for 2018 to proceed. It just…happens. You can’t stop time any more than you can erase it.
But what it does provide, is an excellent opportunity for a personal mental reset. I mean, New Year, New You, right? (Is it just me, or has that been pushed extra hard this year? I can’t remember ever hearing that before.)
So there I was, at my own personal rock bottom. I’ll spare you the gory details, but with the help from Tessa and Lisa, sister under one arm, friend under the other, I crawled out from my cave as they lured me with love and spoon fed some hope back into the shell of what I once was. They both suggested I check-in with my doctor, and for the second time in my life, I’ve been diagnosed with adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood. If you recall, the first (medically recorded) time I felt out of control of my emotions was when I quit my life and bought a one-way ticket to the Arctic Circle, pretty certain I was over Wisconsin, triggering a series of totally predictable anxiety attacks. Fortunately, I had an equally entertaining conversation with the triage nurse who called me back after I electronically scheduled an ordinary visit with my PCP with the reason of: heart palpitations.
I’m just calling about your scheduling comment…can you describe what you mean by heart palpitations?
Oh hi! Yeah, uh well. I dunno. I thought maybe that was inappropriate, I didn’t know how else to put it. But I can feel it? I mean, I can constantly feel my heart beating. And I’ve honestly never noticed it before. Maybe this is normal? It doesn’t feel normal.
Can you feel it right now?
Yes. It’s very loud. I can barely hear you.
And what does it feel like?
Like someone’s playing racquetball inside my chest? I think. I mean, I’ve never actually played real racquetball. But I’m starting pickleball in February.
I’ve never heard of pickleball.
“Yeah, me neither. I have no idea what it is, but according to the internet it’s all the rage.”
“Interesting. Okay, so your racquetball heart…”
This lead to a regular 30 minute primary care session that ended up lasting three hours, which they continually apologized for, but for which I was ecstatic. I experienced my first ever EKG to check out my racquetball heart. And all the blood work. The mental health people came in as part of a new holistic initiative at my healthcare provider, which literally blew me away. I couldn’t believe the attention my “heart palpitations” comment in scheduling via MyChart got me. I felt…special. Cared for. Like for the first time in my life, after all these years of paying for insurance, the concept of healthcare applied to me. Sort of like getting in your first car accident.
But the truth is, I needed help. And they saw that. And they gave it without making me ask for it. They saw the wave had taken me, listened to my struggles and efforts to stay afloat, and threw me a bone. Or a buoy.
Note to any mental healthcare professional out there: if you’re seeing someone for the first time, treat them like you’re randomly running into them at an airport, sharing a drink. Really makes everything less awkward. I literally had no clue who this person in my room was, but he just started talking to me and I talked back. By the time he got down to business, I felt like he was an old friend.
So, I spoke with (doctor) and it sounds like you’re quite aware of what’s going on internally, so I’m not even gonna go there now. But just out of curiosity, how do you think you got here? Any major life changes?
Nope. No. Not really. I mean. Well. I guess I just got back from hiking the PCT (explanation of the PCT), but I wasn’t like this after the AT, so I don’t think it’s that. Oh, and I just started working primarily from home after basically spending a decade on the road (abridged version of my professional work life). I’ve never actually really lived here, I guess. I don’t know, just normal life things, really.
It’s sort of cute you think those are “normal” life things.
3. Write 2x/month (at least)
Which is why there is a (slightly less depressing) part two. It’s January 28. Gotta reach those 2018 quotas. You know, New Year, New Me.
Auntie, T, Auntie T, do you wanna play school with me? You’re the teacher. Auntie T, let’s play yoga. Auntie T, let’s play gymnastics, be the teacher! Auntie T, let’s play tag! Auuuuntieeeee Teeeee! I’m hiiiiiiiding. Auntie T, will you do a floor puzzle with me? Auntie T, let’s play tic-tac-toe. Let’s play school again. Yoga.Gymnastics.Tag.Hide-and-go-seek.Tic-tac-toe.Floor puzzles.Back to school!
I had somehow found myself in the middle of a five-hour repetitive cycle of Graceland, which is less Elvis Presley and more the inner workings of a four-year-old child named Grace. At the time, I was unemployed and only watching the kids for a few hours, so I figured I’d fully commit to the task, putting every ounce of attention and energy I had into the littlest Dinndorfs. How hard could it be?
Holy shit. These things do not turn off. I don’t think Grace stopped talking once. Well, except for the time I went to the bathroom and came out to find her coloring her hair with this weird hair paint I wasn’t quite sure was meant for real hair, but we were past the point of no return, so I told her it looked pretty, chunks and all.
The older I get, the more respect I have for the parental ability to keep it together, even if it’s just a facade. Never again will I question the mom with the cute little kid tugging on her coat, “Mom, mom, mom, mom, mom, mom,” while she’s more absorbed than any human should be in the throw pillows at Target. If you acknowledged every “Mom,” that would quite literally be the only thing you ever did for 24 hours a day, every day, for the rest of your life, period. In fact, with every “Mom,” it’s quite possible moms fall deeper absorbed into whatever’s in front of them, because as everyone knows, if you give a mouse a cookie…
But I adore this child. Back when I lived at the Dorf Haus, she’d wake me up every morning by silently shoving a candle in my face, which was Grace-speak for ‘light this thing so I can blow it out,’ repeat x5. Sometimes she’d just crawl quietly up onto the foot of the bed and creepily stare at me until I acknowledged her presence.
Now she comes downstairs and bangs a plastic hammer against a metal pole. (And yes, to answer your question, I am an adult woman who has frequent sleepovers at her adult friend’s house.)
When Lisa came home (finally) from work, I must have looked two steps away from a one-way ticket to crazy town because the first thing she said, “Ah, so, Grace was on all day?” Clearly, she’d been there. I stumbled out the door, drove home in a daze, eager to sit on my couch and quietly stare at my wall in silence.
Which is about the time my sister FaceTimed me, her tiny four-month-old cooing happily from her lap. I wanted to scream at her, RUN!! I’VE SEEN YOUR FUTURE!! IT’S EXHAUSTING! But I refrained, because no one needs to hear that shit. Besides, she just wanted to share the happy news: Hallmark had started airing their holiday specials!
It was the first week in November. I mean, why stop at the infamous 25 day countdown when you can hook people for 50? Especially since, and I think most of us can agree, the thought of the holidays, the idea of Christmas, is almost always so much more satisfying than any of our realities.
Over consumption of fake snowfall at all the perfect moments, quirky yet strangely functional families, and adorably romantic endeavors that always work out, really leaves us little choice but to waltz into the holidays with completely ridiculous expectations. Usually Reality trips us on our way out the front door and laughs in our face. So who wouldn’t want to start the approach that much sooner, provide some extra cushion for our inevitable letdown?
My obsession with these super cheesy holiday flicks began somewhere around the time my own Christmas lost it’s magic by way of adulthood, and I turned to outside sources to keep it alive. That’s right, I outsource my holiday happiness. Adult Christmas is a lot of work, nothing like the fond memories of your childhood, especially if you have no children for which to be sculpting memories. Getting through the holidays with Hallmark is sort of like living vicariously through anyone else on the internet, but it’s also sort of like coming home. Home to a place that won’t disappoint you (they’re stupidly predictable), to people you’ve never met (and let’s be honest, probably never want to meet, except for that dude in Window Wonderland…he’s pretty neat), yet feel like family. Year after year, they reliably show up in all the classics. And I’m definitely abusing the term “classic,” by referring to smash hits such as (but not limited to): Holiday in Handcuffs, The 12 Dates of Christmas, Holidaze, and basically anything starring Lacey Chabert or Candace Cameron.
During one of my recent Dorf Haus sleepovers, which also happens to be a safe place to binge on terrible holiday movies (admit it, you’d be a regular too), my brain started connecting all the super obvious dots, dots that have been there for years.
So there’s this one common storyline seen in multiple movies across all networks, in which the leading lady has a super chaotic family life where absolutely everything seems to go wrong in the first 20 minutes. Then she hits her head in a small variety of uncreative ways and the rest of the movie is spent living the life she could have had: single sans kids with a successful career, freedom and money, always tons of money, big city living and usually a cat. At first she loves it, then she sees the gaping empty black hole that her life in the fast lane represents, and eventually realizes how much she loves her crazy family. POOF she wakes up, back in the suburbs, surrounded by the chaotic life she was wishing away just minutes before, now for which she has a whole new appreciation. MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYONE! AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT!
Oh, except you single ladies with solid careers, freedom and felines. You go back to being the lonely, pathetic creatures you obviously are, in your gaping, empty, black holes.
Sitting there with Lisa, I realized how together, we sort of represented both sides of this fictional Hallmark life.
“I meeeeean, do they really have to portray the non-family life so…negatively?”
“Yeah, I was wondering if you were taking this personally.”
I mean, first of all, come on. If you already have a loving husband and children and were suddenly forced to live a life without them, of course you’re going to miss them and want them back. If you didn’t, Hallmark would certainly not be the channel promoting your messed-up mind, you horrible human. I mean, I would NEVER choose a life without Grace and Luke, and they aren’t even my children. But, let the record show, I did not feel like I entered the lonely despairs of hell when I entered my own home. I felt…great. Relieved. Peaceful. Happy to be back in my black hole.
See, I don’t have a problem with the way these stories all inevitably end, with appreciation and love for the chaotic family life. “You don’t know how good you got it ’til it’s gone” is a real thing, affecting all walks of life. I absolutely adore the little slices of chaotic family life I get from my close friends and brother and sister’s nuclear families; without them, I too might be sad and lost. It’s just that they make these “other” paths seem so…cold. So empty. The single, successful, financially independent, free woman is without fail, bitchy, lonely and downright scary. She has the predictable cat instead of the predictable family dog. She doesn’t have many friends apart from the doorman at her fancy apartment building, her eager assistant or elderly neighbor. She never seems to get along with her family and she’s alienated most of the friends she’s ever had. She’s not just without a husband and family, she’s completely and utterly a l o n e.
Holidays (especially of the Hallmark variety) are about family, so it’s totally natural this is the focus of these movies. No one wants to see a Christmas movie about a single gal in her late 30s, living with her cats, working from home, making delicious meals for one, swiping right (mostly left) from her couch, drinking wine, having adult sleepovers judging Hallmark holiday movies, totally digging her life choices. I mean, who would watch that?
But maybe next year, Hallmark, consider lightening up on the ‘alternative life’ scenarios. You know, make them seem like more of a choice rather than a horrible mistake.
K thanks, bye.
I’ve never been one for reality TV. Well, except for the early seasons of MTV’s Real World, that stuff was binge-worthy. I just think it’s weird to watch other people getting paid to live their life from my couch, when I’d rather be doing something with my own. But back when Emily and I were hiking the AT, we became straight-up obsessed with the Bachelorette. Emily would calculate mileage and days of food we needed to carry to ensure we’d hit town days on Monday nights, which we would then spend in some fancy B&B, drinking wine and eating cheese, brains empty, unblinking at Chris Harrison for like, two hours. I mean, it’s easy to become obsessed with stupid shit out there when what you’re really trying to do is forget about the constant pain, the bottomless hunger, and the fact you’re carrying ten extra pounds of your own cat pee flavored sweat every day.
Fame. I refuse to believe there is any other logical reason people would willingly go on a show like the Bachelor/ette. I mean seriously, isn’t it hard enough out there? How can you possibly think going on TV to fight 30 other beautiful people for one beautiful person is a good idea? Just join Tinder and be thankful for silent rejections and the ability to passive aggressively weed through the weirdos in private, like the rest of Single America. But we faithfully watched anyway, knowing full well we’d never get those life hours back.
The day finally came I was grateful for every single second I put into that nonsense. Because without that knowledge, I’d be confused as hell as to what happened earlier this year, when I unknowingly participated in my very own season of the Bachelorette. Just like on TV, I was wooed with adventures and careless freedom, endless boxes of wine, fancy dinners cooked on a propane stove, standing on the edge of the world (er, the Grand Canyon). Except there was only ever one eligible bachelor: the Purple Squirrel.
Oh, what a glorious month we shared! Living in a van, wandering from Colorado to California, no responsibilities, no worries at all, operating within the hours of the sun, the open road begging us to choose our own adventure. We hiked in Joshua Tree, stargazed in Moab, climbed around Zion. Cozy breakfasts watching snow fall in the mountains of Colorado, sunrise coffee hikes in the Arches, wine-soaked sunset dinners in Southern California. Who wouldn’t fall in love? We explored the Southwest quickly, as slow as we could, knowing I’d soon start my long walk to Canada. Knowing this would eventually all feel like a distant dream. Knowing you can never quite go back to the way it was.
Just like the Bachelor/ette and the “winner” of the Bachelor/ette must remain publicly separated until the finale episode (a significant time period in which we all know a bunch of shit happens), I started walking alone toward Canada without the Purple Squirrel. The longer I walked, the farther I walked away from whatever we had. I’m not even sure I can pinpoint when it happened. But it definitely happened. I remember at one point trying to peer back into my past life chapters thinking, wait…did I get that right? I mean, the month went by pretty quick and it was filled with a bunch of awesomeness and very little of Life in My Real World. At the time, I didn’t have to think about what made sense for my latter future, because my immediate future was hiking the PCT, where I found myself hanging out with friends I had literally just met, yet eventually knew them longer and better than I knew my supposed sig other. And I found I enjoyed them just as much, sometimes more, even. So I started thinking, maybe the Purple Squirrel was a product of my life situation and not so much the actual human.
But I felt things! I swear to you, I really felt all the things. I know this because I told other people, and they believed me! I don’t exactly gush with emotions about my romantic life, so when I gush, people notice, and I guess this time I gushed. Maybe it was because it aligned with quitting my job; I was free, excited to begin a new adventure, any adventure, so many feels rolling through. Maybe I just went with it without proper processing. Maybe I shouldn’t pretend to know what happened, maybe I shouldn’t try to figure it out. Now I just refer to it as the Bachelorette Effect:
Bachelorette World Feelings ≠ Real World Feelings
As a general rule, I don’t write about active relationships for this very reason. I know I don’t have the best track record, and I’d rather not eat my words or be held accountable for my feelings. I prefer to just tell you about them later, like they never really happened at all. You know, safety first. But, that ship has sailed and here I am, drowning just off the shore of some weird island.
When I got home from the PCT, I received an email from a reader I connected with back when I was preparing to hike the AT. She read between the lines I wasn’t writing.
By the way, what happened to your Purple Squirrel? Did he turn brown?
Man, some people just get me. Her reference made me smile, but it also made me think.
Ah, you are very observant, and that analogy made my day. I think we’re both sort of struggling to figure out what happened there. I don’t think HE turned brown, but when I got back from the hike, I just realized I wasn’t into purple anymore. It really bummed me out, because I was so excited about the idea of him. But when I got home, I just saw him in a different light, through a different lens, and I couldn’t shake it.
So the Purple Squirrel didn’t exactly turn brown; my definition of purple just…changed. I keep telling myself there’s a difference.
And now? I’m sad. I’m disappointed. I’m scared. Sad because it didn’t work out. Disappointed because I really wanted it to work. I genuinely thought it was going to for a hot minute, for the first time in like, a decade, and it sort of feels like I let myself down. Like I can’t be trusted. Which really sucks. Like, I made a choice or something, and this feels nothing like a choice. And scared of my feelings, how quickly they can change. How could I have such intense feelings about someone, just to watch them evaporate? I could literally feel them leaving my body as I hiked north. I even tried to reason myself back into them for over a thousand miles.
The worst part is, I can’t even offer him an explanation other than: I just don’t feel the same way anymore. Because that’s exactly what it is. And I can’t force something to be there when it isn’t. I can’t be with someone just because of how I apparently used to feel. Because of all the nice things I once wrote, describing those feelings. For whatever reason, I don’t feel that way now. And I can’t pretend. I am a terrible pretender, ask anyone. He didn’t do any one thing wrong. No one did anything wrong.
I just hiked 2,650 miles and came out a different person.
A few years ago, my basement was ripe with conditions for mold: dark, dank, moist; basically a five-star hotel for the furry growth of minute fungal hyphae. To alleviate the situation, all I really had to do was pop over to the store and get a dehumidifier, but for some reason I found that task extremely challenging. Instead, I put it on the To Do List, the To Buy List, the Must Do Before Europe List, all of The Lists, and avoided the act of completion every chance I got. I knew the longer I let it go, the more mold was likely to collect; that the solution was quite easy now and would be more difficult later, but nope. I simply pretended it wasn’t a real issue, though it so obviously was. I refused to face it, to admit it: the mold, the task, the truth, all of it. Finally my friend Christina, who was staying with me at the time and had stored a thing or two in the basement, brought home a dehumidifier in justifiable frustration, bringing my avoidance dance to an end. Guiltily relieved, I crossed it off the list(s).
So I’m a procrastinator. But not about big things. About stupid things. I kind of have this thought if you ignore something long enough, it will just go away. For example, the more cat poop that piles up, the less I want to empty the litter box. I know there will be even more poop tomorrow. Logic tells me I should just clean it today. But I don’t. Because, you know…tomorrow. I’m actually what you might call a master procrastinator. I often disguise the act in such a way I don’t even know I’m procrastinating.
Somewhere along the Pacific Crest Trail, I decided not to worry about writing until I reached Canada. It was stressing me out, I never had service and rarely had time. When I get home, I said, I’ll pick it up again. This is the longest I’ve gone without writing in over four years. And just like the mold, it’s on all the lists, jostling for attention, but something else always purposefully takes precedence. I’ve cleaned my house from top to bottom, purged all the closets, done all the yard work. I’ve visited family and friends in other cities, other states, people I haven’t seen in a decade. I’ve avoided my laptop entirely, because it just reminds me of what I am not doing with it. I even went as far as to get a job. Anything to avoid being alone in my house with my computer, because then I’d have to get real creative with my excuses.
Maybe my avoidance tactics look relatively normal from the outside. I mean, who doesn’t want a super (duper) clean house, to see friends and family (especially babies named Henry!), and (this is a stretch) a regular income? But I can see my underlying motive poking out from the inside.
I mean, why do people procrastinate? Maybe the task appears too great, too big, too difficult. Maybe it’s the fear of failure, or the thought you won’t be good enough. Other times you just really don’t want to do it, whatever it is (cat poop). In the mold situation, who knows, maybe I was embarrassed to admit how long I had let it go, so I looked the other way, hoping it would solve itself. Which it did. Kinda.
And now? I don’t want to face my feelings, obviously. I love writing, I need to write, it brings me to a place I feel at home, connected, whole, a place where shit starts to make sense. It’s not that I don’t have anything to write, it’s that I have all the things to write. But if I’m being honest, I don’t want to be honest. While some people feel all the feels while doing something big, like hiking 2,650 miles across the country (or at least they pretend to), I struggle to feel things in the moment, like really feel them. I’m one of those weirdos who lives for the anticipation and the reflection and I’m all like, meh, during the big show. And I’m not ready to unravel all the packages I so neatly bundled up and sent myself to open later.
But I have like 8,432 metaphorical boxes blocking my every move, so I have to start somewhere. Thru-hiking is the worst. And it’s the best. It’s all the things. All the different things to all the different people. And I thought it would be okay this time, because I knew how it ended. I’ve been on both sides and understood what was waiting for me. But sometimes you walk deep into the wilderness at total peace, thinking you got it all figured out, and when you walk out you’re all like, oh my, I think I need a therapist or something. Shit gets real out there in the woods.
You know that feeling you get when you’re trying to remember a word? Or recall the name of a person or a place? It’s just on the tip of your tongue, you can’t quite grab it, you can’t hear it, can’t see it, but you can feel it somewhere inside, you know it’s there…yet…it feels so frustratingly far away?
That’s how I feel right now, but with life. I’m so close, but equally far away. In reference to what, you ask? Good question, I say. I have no damn clue.
And would you look at that. I’m procrastinating writing this very moment, by writing about procrastination. Master procrastinator.
Time to sort through this mess in my head. You’re in for a reeeal treat.
You’re starting when? But the desert will be too hot by then! You’ll die out there! You’re not skipping the Sierras? Haven’t you heard about all the snow? The rivers are raging! You’ll die out there!
It hasn’t been an easy year for the class of 2017 PCT thru-hikers. Most of us started paying close attention to the weather in California months before our hikes began, watching as the snow in the mountains fell. And fell. And fell and fell. We saw the pictures of snowed-in Mammoth, heard ski resorts were predicting the season would extend through July, knowing the PCT came within miles of these areas. So we tried reasoning with ourselves: Um, sooo this means a lot of water in the desert…right?
Start too late, the desert heat will melt your soul. But start too early and the Sierras will swallow you whole. Either way, you better make it through Washington before it starts snowing in the Cascades.
People on and off the internet were ablaze with “information” on how to handle a 2017 thru-hike: when to start, how to beat the desert heat, whether or not to skip the Sierras, crampons or microspikes, which creeks were passable, which creeks would sweep you away if you so much as looked at them. Early thru-hikers posted accounts of their experiences in the Sierras, how river crossings ended their hikes and nearly their lives. We listened to a hiker, providing trail magic in Agua Dulce when the Sierras proved too much for him, tell us how they were impassable and anyone attempting this year is crazy and would basically die.
When you’re sweating on mile 454 of the desert, the snowy Sierras 300 miles away seem impossibly far, a chapter in another book. As we hiked along, we continued to hear about people skipping north to Oregon or Northern California, leaving the Sierras early, or quitting all together, not paying too much attention, yet still hoping for at least one success story. Which, is sort of funny, because just as one person failing doesn’t mean everyone will fail, one person succeeding doesn’t mean everyone will succeed. But it does mean it’s possible.
There wasn’t a whole lot we could do about the snow or the rivers, so we did the only thing we could do: take on the trail in front of us, one day at a time. We aimed for a respectable date to enter the Sierras, June 21, six days after the supposed recommended date to enter the Sierras on a normal snow year, and kept walking north.
There were basically three groups of people we heard from before we hit the silence of the Sierras: people whose job it is to care, like family, friends, organizations concerned for your safety; people who simply parrot information they’ve heard, trying to be helpful; and people who tried and failed, and because they couldn’t do it, you probably shouldn’t even try.
With all due respect internet, people of the internet, random strangers at Agua Dulce, you don’t know the stuff I’m made of. You don’t know my skill set, my secret powers, my capabilities, my breaking points, how willing I am to be outside my comfort zone, what my zone of comfort even is. How can you assume, based solely on your own personal experiences, or worse, things you’ve read on the internet, that I’ll fail when I haven’t even been given the chance to succeed? And seriously, if the first time I am hearing about all this snow in the Sierras is from a comment on one of my Instagram posts, we have a whole ‘nother issue.
If I lived my life according to other people’s limits, how would I ever test my own? How can I discover where my own boundaries lay, if I never try to reach them? If you picture your life boundaries and comfort zones as a circle around your body, mine has a bunch of hand indentations pressing around the perimeter from where I’ve pushed myself. It’s even got a few holes where I’ve successfully punched through those comfort zones, making room for a whole new bubble of boundaries and limits.
Besides, fears are almost always more terrifying than reality. Yes, the Sierras were an awesomely difficult challenge. I look back at some of the things I did, things even I might not believe if I hadn’t been there, standing on top of that pass, or on the other side of that river. I remember on some of the scarier passes (icy, steep, slushy, etc.), assessing the situation, taking a deep breath and moving forward, one small calculated step at a time, taking care not to look down the steep slope on my right, or the steep slope I could reach out and touch on my left, just straight ahead at the footsteps cut into the snow ledge. Plunge ice axe, step. Repeat until complete. Then look back at your accomplishment. We spent hours hiking through snowfields and over sun cups where a wrong step or the slip of a foot could ruin your day or end your hike.
And the rivers were no joke, especially when you’re 5’4″, rocking a 125 pound trail weight. On one river crossing, Snap and I watched G wade up to his chest in water, which meant over our heads, and opted to find a safer crossing. We hiked almost three miles upstream where the river just got wider and deeper before we found an even close to manageable way, which basically involved Snap tossing me to G like a rag doll. On another crossing, the current proved a bit too much for my frame and before I even realized what was happening, G had my runaway trekking poll in one hand and was holding me up by my backpack with the other. I have no idea how he remained standing, or how he managed to pull me across. On still another, I crossed a calm but very deep stream and started to float when the water reached my backpack, involuntarily removing my feet from the bottom. As I casually began drifting downstream, I just started awkwardly swimming toward the other side where another hiker helped pull me out. And don’t get me started on the sketchy logs. Some of those were scarier than the actual water.
On our final pass in the Sierras, a hiker behind us lost control and unintentionally began his glissade. I watched in horror as he headed straight for a rock patch, bounced off, seemingly head first. I heard him hit. I thought for sure he was unconscious, or much, much worse. Remarkably, he walked away with a scratched leg.
So yeah, shit got real out there. But in talking with other hikers, you quickly realize everyone’s experience was different. A typical conversation in the Sierras:
How in the world did you get across Tyndall?
Oh that, we found a log a bit downstream. But how did you get across Mono?
Oh, there was a log a bit upstream.
We talked with a group who said they never crossed a river with water above their knees (Actually, I believe what they said was, “The water never went balls deep,” which is apparently important if you’re a dude.) Point is, our individual choices combined with our individual abilities determined our individual experiences.
The PCT is full of all kinds of people. People with lots of experience in outdoor situations, people with little to no experience, and all the people in between. I met a man who waited two hours for another person to show up because he couldn’t find his way out of the campsite. So when organizations like the PCTA put out warnings about conditions, they are talking to all of these people. And those individuals must decide for themselves how capable they are to tackle the challenges in front of them. Because the PCTA, like most people, has no idea what your skill level is and what you’re capable of…only you know that.
So even if I personally thought it was crazy (for my taste) to enter the Sierras in May or even early June, especially as a solo hiker, I would never tell anyone else not to do so, because I have no idea who you are or what you can do. California has been in a drought for the past five years or more (don’t quote me on that) so maybe we hikers forgot something basic: high mountains are supposed to have snow. If you attempted to enter the Sierras in May in a record snow year, you probably shouldn’t have been surprised at all the snow and subsequent snow melt (i.e. rivers), and hopefully had the skills and confidence to tackle them. Still, shit happens, that I know.
Our days in the Sierras were hard work and slow going, but definitely doable. And yeah, I’ll probably still pee my pants a little every time I hear a rushing river, intimidated by the thought of finding a safe place to cross, but overall, I’m so happy we ignored the fear mongering and naysayers and hiked through, testing our own limits, creating new boundaries. I’m especially grateful for my hiking partners, G and Snap, for ensuring I came out alive on the other end. (I’m no idiot, I trapped some good ones early.) We were able to see the Sierras in a light perhaps not many do.
If you skipped this year, I totally respect that, but I hope you did so based on your own limits and boundaries, not those of someone else. Don’t let anyone put you in a box. Draw your own. Then punch some holes in it, of course.
I can’t remember when I started pretending Mother Nature and I were BFFs, but I truly started believing it on the Appalachian Trail. The moment we stepped out of my friend Erin’s car to hike the first 400 strenuous steps of the Approach Trail, the sky opened her spout and the rain came pouring out. I pulled out my very ridiculous (but incredibly useful) looking bright blue tarp poncho/pack cover, and reminded myself that this is what I signed up for, the AT is notoriously wet, I should probably get used to it.
Around mile four of sloshing around in my shoes with a 30 pound pack on my back, convincing myself I was having a great time, I started pleading with her.
Listen, Mother Nature, you know me. I love a good storm. I don’t even mind hiking in the rain. I like it actually. It makes me move a little faster, provides motivation.The only thing that really sucks is setting up and taking down in the rain. If we can work around those two times, you and I will have a beautiful friendship.
We had delightful weather for the next four and a half months.
After days of mild desert hiking my first week on the PCT, blown away by the beauty of the morning, I mentioned our weather luck to a fellow hiker from Holland. He looked at me like I was nuts. Clearly he had a different idea of “beautiful weather.”
We laughed at our disagreement, and then he asked, “Have you ever thought, maybe it’s your attitude that makes the weather so nice?”
I wandered up the trail trying to recall if the weather on the AT was really as good as I remembered. I mean, sure, we had some cold mornings, freezing nights, hot afternoons, days so humid that breathing felt like drowning. And yeah, it rained on us, soaking us to the bone, to the point you start trudging through the shin deep puddles and mud because you already have trench foot, what’s one more puddle? And the storms rolled in, and the storms rolled out.
But I guess I remember these things happening at the most convenient of times. Like while walking our last few miles into town. Or on our zero days. Or right after we packed up camp. I remember literally run-hiking nine miles in two hours through Shenandoah to try to beat the storm the ranger warned us about, you better just stay here, she said, you’ll never make it to the next campground, but it was only noon and we weren’t done yet. Plus, what a fun challenge! We hiked our asses off, zipped up our tent with the clap of the first giant thunder, and shared a high-five, panting like puppies on a hot summer day. Then we celebrated with wine, cribbage and blackberry pie at the lodge (yes, of course this was our real motivation).
On the days that really mattered though, boy did Mother Nature do us a solid. Right before we entered the Great Smoky Mountains, we stayed with a local who told us there were five incredible views the Smokies were known for, but we would never see all five because the damn weather never holds for anyone’s entire 72 mile trip through it. We had five, beautiful, clear days of magic. We summited Mount Washington, known for the worst weather in the world, on a sunny summer day. Katahdin was a dream, the Whites were perfection. And hey, I can count the times I had to pack a wet tent on my left hand. Maybe Mother Nature was listening after all.
Looking back, the inclement weather added to my experiences, I didn’t let it take away from them. So maybe my fellow hiker had a point. I’ve walked nearly 600 miles of Southern California, and I’m still waiting for the dreadful desert of my imagination to appear, an image born from the words of others and countless warnings of heat and misery. And so far…it’s been lovely; the views outstanding, the heat quite bearable. Only now I can’t be sure if that’s real, or just my reality. Perhaps part Mother Nature, part me?
I guess it doesn’t matter. I once heard the difference between an obstacle and adventure is attitude, and I prefer to fill my life with one of those things.
(Pssst, Mother Nature, if you are listening, I know you’re aware of the situation you’ve created in the Sierras. I’ll be there in about a week, just a heads up.)
Somewhere deep in the wilderness of Connecticut on the Appalachian Trail, I had to go. Emily and I were taking a lunch break right before a steep, rocky five-mile descent, and this was pretty much my last chance. I scurried a bit further into the woods and stepped over a giant log, my foot landing on a large black duffle bag, creating a sort of clinking glass sound.
Well that’s weird. Next to the duffle was another tote, full of pots and pans and other odds and ends. Why in the world would something like that be way out here? But when I have to go, I have to go. With little time to spare, I called Emily to come investigate. When you’ve walked over a thousand miles on the same trail, random duffle bags in the wilderness are like gossip magazines in a long line at the grocery store, all of a sudden extremely interesting.
As I turned my back to the next giant fallen tree and popped a squat, we pondered aloud what could be inside. Emily was a few feet from the bags when I saw her eyes get bigger than any eyes I have ever seen before, and will ever see again. She pointed at what I could only assume was behind me, because why would she point at me? She knew what I was doing.
So, in my very compromised position, I turned my head around to see what all the fuss was about.
A shaggy, blonde, bespectacled head had popped up from behind the log, the very same log my ass was pointed at, about to, well, you know.
I like to think I reacted the way any human would if they walked into a private bathroom stall, shut the door, sat on the toilet, and heard a “Psst” in their ear just as they were about to go.
“I’M POOPING!!!!” I shouted, with all the emotions.
“Oh, sorry,” the head replied, laying back down behind the log from which it came.
“Well, not anymore,” I needlessly commented as I hurried to pull up my skirt, grab my pack and catch up with Emily who had already run down the trail in tears.
The moral of that story is: you’re never alone on a long distance wilderness trail. Even when you’re 100% sure you are, even if you haven’t seen another person in eight hours, especially when you see “abandoned” duffle bags in the forest. Feeling lonely on the PCT? Just try to take a pee in the open desert, or on one of those never ending exposed cliff edges, someone is guaranteed to come around the corner and catch you midstream.
A few weeks after summiting Katahdin, when only the good memories remained and the hard times no longer seemed that hard, I started ingesting all the information I could find on the internet about the PCT. I wanted to know everything. Was it similar to the AT? What was different? How? Why? Again and again I read that aside from both being long distance hiking trails, basically everything was different. I was annoyed, unsatisfied. That answer didn’t help quench my thirst for information at all. But after 19 days and 370 miles, I get it. It’s like trying to compare my bicycle to my car. They’re both modes of transportation, but there’s really no point in laying out their similarities beyond that.
For me, the biggest difference so far has been embarking on this adventure without my dear friend and hiking partner. I feel Emily’s absence on the trail every day. Like when I struggle to reattach my pee rag to my pack (you learn to do everything with a pack on your back) and she’s not there to help me. Yeah, I know, she’s a really good hiking partner. Or when I stretch my arms on the trail and no one behind me tells me to put them down (though I’m sure they are thinking it), that I smell like an onion. Or when I get to the top of a hard climb and wait for nothing in particular, until I realize I am waiting for someone who is never coming. When I point at a plant (like, all the plants) and wonder aloud what it is, no one makes an educated (or more often, accurate) guess, and then tells me all about how it can be used in the wilderness. When I make odd comments in my awful British accent and no one responds in a slightly less awful British accent. When I stroll into town and try to convince whoever I’m with that town days are about drinking wine in bed and watching the Bachelorette or Game of Thrones in fancy B&Bs. When I take a photo and have no hiker model to give it meaning. When the sun is still up as I roll into camp and I get excited about cribbage time, and realize my cribbage partner is across the country.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy hiking solo, it’s just a total different experience. I love hiking by myself, being alone with my thoughts, moving at my own pace, having just myself to let down. But part of me also feels a bit guilty. I’m fully aware I wouldn’t be taking these steps if it weren’t for Emily. A few years ago when she asked me to hike the AT, her true desire was really the PCT, but a friend suggested if she wanted to hike both (or go for that elusive Triple Crown), start with the AT. You’ll see why (I totally see why). And now I’m here and she’s not. I’m living out one of her dreams, and she can’t (yet). And that sucks.
But the thing about Emily, she would hate that I feel guilty. So I have to passive aggressively write about feeling guilty. The kind of hiking partner who is willing to handle another woman’s pee rag is definitely one who wants that other woman to crush it, pretty much always, no matter what the situation.
No, I am not alone out here, yet I feel a unique loneliness all the same. I didn’t start writing this as a love letter to the best adventure buddy out there, but it definitely turned into one.
Miss ya, Em.